Hospitality as Evangelism
By Bryan Tener
As the church moves beyond the changes and challenges of the pandemic and encounters continuing racial strife, disaffiliation, and demographic changes, it needs to examine how to use disruptions and changes as opportunities to lean into and shape Christian practices that have been handed down from past generations. It must look at how we continue to offer the good news of Jesus Christ to our communities and the world. With the rise of political division, xenophobia, and white Christian nationalism, we must show Christian love in ways that offer a different witness from the world of divisive politics.
In a world that seems increasingly inhospitable, the church has an opportunity to reimagine hospitality and foster a welcoming and grace-filled witness to our communities, the nation, and the world, as we offer hope, love, and life to those around us. This may be the most vital and life-giving offering the church can give today— hospitality to those whom the world denies hospitality.
To offer hospitality, we can:
- Create safe and welcoming spaces where people from diverse backgrounds come together to share their stories.
- Practice active listening and empathy toward those who are different from us. We need to be willing to listen to the experiences and struggles of others with an open heart, without judgment or prejudice.
- Serve and advocate for those who are marginalized or oppressed by the church and/or the dominant culture. This involves actively addressing social inequalities and systemic injustices and working toward the beloved community in which there is no room for racism, poverty, or violence.
These three efforts move us from friendliness to Christian hospitality, as they help build community and foster understanding; they are also crucial for upholding the values of love, justice, and righteousness that are at the core of the Christian faith.
Creating welcoming and safe spaces is important for Christian hospitality. Local churches are the hub where relationships with God and one another are cultivated, where tools for discipleship are offered, support and care are given, and faith is shared in a communal journey. The faith community and the learning and growth that happens within are essential parts of discipleship.
Creating welcoming and safe spaces is important for Christian hospitality.
Sometimes, though, as churches grow and begin to plateau, the people get comfortable with those who are already there. We may begin to close off the church unintentionally by using insider language, failing to notify the surrounding community about times of worship services, and assuming that everyone in the community has a church home. The neighborhood demographics may be changing, and current church members may be driving in from a little farther away. When we’ve closed ourselves off, treat going to church as a task to check off for the week, make assumptions about who lives around us, or expect people to come to us and meet us where we are, we are not practicing Christian hospitality. And if people do visit, they will notice the lack of hospitality. The church won’t feel like a safe or welcoming space.
When I’ve asked churches about their hospitality and welcome, they usually identify themselves as friendly. But friendly is surface level. Hospitality is deeper. Hospitality is welcoming the stranger, entering into relationship, care, and concern for one another, maybe even sacrificing something so that another may receive what is needed. As you think about your congregation, ask yourself, “Are we friendly? Do we nurture and foster friendships? Are there people or groups of people who would not be welcomed or included in the church? What would someone new experience as they enter the doors?” As you think through these questions, you could consider walking through the hospitality assessment on UMOfficialResources.com/Guidelines. The assessment will give you some starting points for growing more hospitable, especially when people enter the life of the church. What steps need to happen to begin creating a welcoming and safe space so that Christian hospitality is offered and experienced?
Christian hospitality not only means creating a safe and welcoming space, but it also means listening while seeking to understand others and growing a capacity for empathy. As we encounter people in our day-to-day living, we may have multiple opportunities to really listen to others. If we aren’t intentional with active listening, we may rush through the conversation, leaving the other person feeling unheard or misunderstood. With love, patience, and humility, we can begin the practice of engaged listening. Engaged listening begins as we allow ourselves to be present with others. Oftentimes, it is difficult to put away distractions, whether it is a work task or stress. We may even be distracted because we’re thinking of our reply —maybe before the person we’re speaking with has even begun talking. As we begin to engage in conversations with others, it may be helpful to keep these questions in mind as you begin the practice of engaged listening.
- What can you learn from them?
- What are their “why” concerns, passions, and dreams? What do they value?
- What gifts are present, and is there someone who would be a good connector with those gifts?
- What experiences have they gone through or are going through, and how have those experiences shaped their lives?
These questions can help us focus our listening on the person we’re speaking with, offer us a chance to listen more deeply, and provide potential connecting points with other people or an invitation into the life of the church and faith community. Active listening is an opportunity to be present and to experience another’s heart that sometimes may be in pain, full of joy, overwhelmed with heaviness, hope-filled, or empty; all have a story that needs to be heard. By intentionally listening, we offer Christian hospitality. Healing and wholeness can take place as you live out your discipleship of Jesus, sharing the good news and creating a safe and welcoming presence through emphatic listening.
Christian hospitality not only means creating a safe and welcoming space, but it also means listening while seeking to understand others and growing a capacity for empathy.
Serving and advocating for people who are marginalized and oppressed moves us more deeply into Christian hospitality. Caring for those who are being hurt by political, economic, and social systems is rooted in Jesus’ teachings. He understood marginalized people and empathized and struggled with them in his life, his teachings, and his death. Jesus offers hope and shows us what God’s love looks like. If we are to grow to be more like Jesus, then we too should care for those who are oppressed, marginalized, and dehumanized through unjust systems. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically pointed out, the contemporary church risks becoming marginalized if it fails to uphold its historical commitment to understanding and serving the needs of all members of society. Offering Christian hospitality leads us to stand up and stand with the voices that are seeking to be heard or that are being quieted by the powers that be. Creating avenues for conversation around issues such as immigration, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and health care, the land-back movement and native sovereignty issues, gun control, racism, poverty, and public education (the list goes on) is an expression of hospitality. There are opportunities to offer a Christian hospitable welcome with compassion in meeting short-term needs as we work toward a more just and righteous ordering of society. The church can offer a witness to our communities and to the world of what real hospitality and welcome look like. This is good news that people need to hear and see in action.
Out of the challenges and disruptions of the past several years, the church has hopeful opportunities ahead. The practice of Christian hospitality that seeks to create a safe and welcoming space, actively listens and grows in empathy, and serves and advocates for those oppressed and marginalized can offer real transformative good news, not only for individuals but for whole communities— and not only for whole communities but the world. This approach to hospitality reflects the love of Christ and is necessary as we seek to be disciples who share God’s love for the transformation of the world from the way that it is now (divided, hostile, and inhospitable to those who are not like the dominant culture) into more like what God created it to be, where all have access to love and the flourishing of life.